WTOC Investigates: Is Savannah's alternative school a helping hand or a breeding ground for bad behavior?

(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Building Bridges Academy, Savannah-Chatham County Public School System's alternative school, offers an education to students with long-term suspensions, disciplinary problems or criminal histories.

School leaders, Savannah-Chatham Metro Police and current students say the program is working despite recent violence involving students

For Angel Harris, Building Bridges was her last chance for a high school education.

"I got into a couple of fights," she said. "Well, a big fight. I got into it with a student again. I got into it with a campus police. I wasn't going to be sent here until my mama asked to be sent here. They were just going to put me out of school permanently. It was looking like I wasn't really going to make it in this world."

The Building Bridges program is in its third year in Savannah. Principal Marcus Scott has headed up the high school program since its inception and took over the middle school this year. He said about 75 students are enrolled in the high school, and 35 students attend the middle school. Both the middle and high school have a maximum capacity of 150 students each.

Scott and the program's goal is getting students back to their "home schools" after a semester at Building Bridges, but some aren't allowed back.

Students are at the school for committing infractions at school or in the community.

"Many of our kids are what's called designated felons," Scott, who is also vice president of the Georgia Association for Alternative Education, said. "They committed some act in the community, and they're not allowed back to their home school."

As of Oct. 25, 17 students in the high school and three in the middle school fit into that category, but Scott said housing lots of students with disciplinary problems and criminal histories in the same building hasn't been a problem for the staff of students.

"Now, when I first got here, I thought that that would be because you have gangs in Savannah," Scott said. "You hear about it on the news all the time, but that hasn't been a problem in this building. At least in the school setting - not saying we've never had a fight because we have - but usually there's not that back and forth. If there is, we have peer mediation. We work with the peer mediation group, and we'll mediate. Usually, that resolves the problem."

Damien King, a senior at Building Bridges sent to the program for drug possession, said students still push the boundaries and test one another.

"You can't let nobody try you here, like for real," King said. "Cause if they try you, they're going to try to...they just going to try to punk you out. [I'm going to] say it like that. I came over here because I had some drugs on me, but I'm over that now. So, right now, I'm just trying to get out of school and start my life, really."

King may be focused on moving forward, but Cpl. Dion Hurley, a juvenile investigator for Metro, said that isn't the case for some who find themselves attending the alternative school.

"A lot of kids get into these alternative schools, and not to say that they're bad, but a lot of them go in with a little, minor infraction, and then, by the time they leave, they've gotten with the wrong crowd for whatever reasons," Hurley said. "They wind up getting into more trouble. A kid will make a mistake, and if you put a kid in with the bad kids, he's going to be one of those bad kids. Not all of them, but then, a lot of bad kids will come out that situation, [and] if you can put them with good kids, they can rehab themselves and become one of the good kids. A lot them are pretty smart kids, they just...they're kids that made mistakes."

Hurley works with students in a several different schools, ranging from elementary to high school.

"It's like all of them are my kids," he said. "I have a lot of kids."

More than that, he's part of a small group of officers working with the district, school psychologists, probation officers and principals.

"There's a group of us - there's five of us - and our job is basically to work with the board of education and juvenile court system to try to keep these kids out of the system," he said. "A lot of times a kid will do something, and it wasn't that bad. So, they can mediate it in court or mediate it in school before they have to give them a criminal record. That's what we're trying to do: keep them from becoming or getting that criminal record before it's time for them to become an adult and start doing positive things and succeed. We don't want to mess up their chances to succeed."

However, the July shooting and deadly car crash in Savannah's City Market showed that doesn't always work and amplified conversations about youth gangs and gun violence. Jerry Chambers, Jr., the alleged shooter and driver, was 17 at the time of the crime and admitted to police he was a member of a gang.

Two months later, a 16-year-old violated probation for being in a car with guns, gang members and an uncharged ankle monitor as his half-brother was shot and killed. He was also shot in City Market in July and admitted to police he was a member of a gang.

Both were students at Building Bridges Academy.

"Every time I see a student that may have been through us that definitely makes me think, 'What could we have done possibly differently?' And I don't know if there's anything we can," Scott said. "I think that if we look at like I said, this is the third year, and that's maybe 500 kids we've had. One of my sayings to my teachers is, 'We can't save every child,' but we, our job is to wake up every morning and try to save every child. So out of 500 kids, we may have had five that slipped through the crack."

Hurley agreed, saying, "You can do the best you can with raising a child, giving them advice, teaching them right from wrong. At some point, that child makes a conscious decision just to do wrong. We can do everything in the world to save and prevent these kids from doing it, but you can't stop everything."

Scott said most of the students know the one thing that will get them kicked out is fighting, so if they want to there, especially the high school students who aren't required to be in school, they know they have to follow the rules.

"It's different. I like getting patted down every day and searched every day," Harris said. "Yeah, they don't play that here."

"Some kids it works for. Some kids it doesn't," Hurley said. "I mean, it's just one of those things."

[You can watch the full interview with Principal Scott below.]

For King and Harris, it seems to be working. Both are attending Building Bridges voluntarily this year because they like the smaller class sizes and feel like they're really learning.

"You're going to walk out of each class, and you're going to learn something," Harris said.

It takes work on their end to keep the program working, both academically and socially.

"People do try to try you here, but you just got to brush that off your shoulder," Harris said. "Here, you fight, you can either go to jail, and you can get put out for a whole year. I had my days. I had my days, and I had to think about it. I was like, I'm too close."

King said, "I brush it off sometimes, but it depends on what you say to me, like if you be foul and call me out my name or some jive like that. I know that I'm supposed to know when I'm right or wrong. I just walk off, but I don't do that sometimes."

King said that's something he's working on, and the school is helping.

One of the things Scott said makes this program different from the failed Scott Learning Center and Ombudsman alternative school programs is his emphasis on interpersonal interactions.

"One thing I'm big on is building relationships, so they can understand that, hey, we're here to support you, but you're going to have to do the right thing," Scott said.

One-on-one attention has been important for student success and for students to feel successful and appreciated, he said.

Achaunte Moore, a Building Bridges student who was part of the Ombudsman program, said the change is significant.

"Building Bridges is way better than Ombudsman because they didn't really do nothing," she said. "They just checked us and everything. Basically, you just sat there. I've seen a lot of children just sit there or just play dice or whatever, basically gamble. They didn't really give me my classes. I was just there just to be there."

Harris, King and Moore all mentioned specific teachers who had the greatest impact, both academically and emotionally, on their experience.

The school partners with dozens of community agencies - everything from the Department of Juvenile Justice to sports leagues to End Gun Violence - and offers wrap-around services for students. Every day, there's a designated intervention period, which Scott says teaches, "how to do the right thing."

"If they're here for fighting, we may give them counseling on fighting or if they're here for drugs, maybe some kind of drug rehab program," Scott said.

They also try to bridge gaps between school and home life.

"I'll never forget when my first year here one of the students said, 'Y'all do a lot of stuff for us at school, but y'all don't think about us once you're home. You're going to your house. We're going wherever in the streets,'" Scott said.

This year, the program brought middle school students to Hunter Army Airfield for an overnight stay. Scott said the program also offers after school programs, sports and Saturday school to fill students' free time.

Scott said he relies heavily on his "support team," made of a school psychologist, case manager, school guidance counselor and social worker. He said those four people are essential to identify and address the root cause of a student's infraction.

"We do different things to make sure that they're successful, and, like I said, address whatever that problem is that caused them to continue to get in trouble," Scott said.

A case manager follows a student back to his or her home school for the first four weeks to help with the transition, and Scott said he'll have probation officers on staff next semester.

Students can only transition back to their home schools twice a year in either December or May. To be allowed back to their home schools, students must pass all classes, have no major discipline referrals, not miss more than five days of school, and parents must spend two hours per semester their child is enrolled with a school psychologist.

Hurley said that kind of parent involvement is essential to reduce community violence.

"Parents are put here to protect kids from themselves, and we need to do a better job as parents and as a community," he said. "The police department has their part. Community has their part. Parents have a big part. Even though these kids spend a lot of time in school, it's what are they doing when they're not at school? What are parents doing with their kids? I know it's hectic when you're working a full-time job, raising the kids, but that's what you had them for. So, do the best you can for them. Get them to experience a lot of things outside the house that are positive. Parents should be involved in everything their kid's doing, especially these days monitoring their kid's social media habits. That's one of the biggest problems with kids growing up today. They think everything can be solved by going on the internet, and that's not true."

Hurley said "out of control" social media played a big role in the City Market violence, and he thinks more parental monitoring of those accounts could have prevented the tragedy.

Harris, King and Moore are all set to graduate this year, and Scott said the school has a 100 percent graduation rate. Harris plans to join the military.

King said he's working with the Upward Bound program and preparing to take the ACT to apply to college.

Moore also plans to attend a college or university, with hopes of becoming a photographer and traveling.

They and Scott hope that success helps change public perception of the alternative school.

"When people think of Building Bridges, they just think of a bad school that's just filled with bad children," Moore said. "They don't do nothing. They don't teach you anything. They actually teach us stuff that they're teaching at other high schools."

Moore and Harris said they had no idea what to expect before attending Building Bridges, but were scared and prepared for the worst.

"I didn't know what to think," Harris said. "I just thought, 'Ugh,' 'cause when I first got sent here, I thought, 'Oh man, I'm about to go to jail. I'm going to jail school.' And when I got here, I was like 'Oh it ain't even that bad.'"

Scott said substitute teachers are regularly surprised when they come to the school and said those who think it's a breeding ground for violence should visit.

"I would say please come by and see us," Scott said. "Usually people think of it as negative, like, everybody's been expelled, and that's why they're in that program. We're an alternative to the traditional school setting. So, they couldn't be successful at their regular school doesn't mean, again, that they should receive an inferior education. It means they need an alternative way to learn. We want to change the perception of alternative schools."

Along with changing perception, Scott hopes to eventually change the community. As the program ages and more students go through it, he thinks the lessons learned inside the school will translate outside and lead to less community violence.

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